Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Greatest Collection of Basketball Pioneers Ever Assembled?

 In honor of today’s 125th anniversary of the birth of basketball, I dug out some stuff that has been loitering in the notebook for a while about what may be one of the greatest gatherings of basketball pioneers in the history of the game. It was a two-day basketball orgy played in a cow barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in March 1925.

The 14th-annual Indiana High School Basketball Tournament began only two days after the greatest tornado tragedy in U.S. history, though that really does not figure into the story, other than to set a contrasting scene for the weekend of basketball that followed. An air of sadness and revival hovered over the festivities as three states tried to figure out what caused a weather event that killed more than 800 people. While schoolboys played games, a total of 83 children died in nine leveled school houses across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

From the March 22, 1925, edition of the Indianapolis News.

The mustachioed man followed the path of the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, sitting on a clattering train for 520 Midwestern miles to reach his final destination.

He left Lawrence, Kansas, on a trip to Indianapolis to see what Hell he had wrought. At least it's assumed he went on a train, because commercial air travel was still in its infancy, thanks to the Kelly Act, and there was no coherent interstate highway system for driving such a distance for a four-day trip.

In some ways, the man was beaten down by life, having peaked at the age of 30 with his greatest innovation. An ordained Presbyterian minister, a licensed physician and a former college administrator, he had been relieved of many of his duties at the University of Kansas, from chapel director and professor to basketball coach to university physician to athletics director to chairman of the department of physical education.

Of the eight coaches in the long and successful history of Jayhawk basketball, he is the only one with a losing record (55-60).

His name was James Naismith, and 125 years ago today (12/21/1891), the native of Almonte, Ontario, Canada, created basketball.

More specifically, he posted the game’s first 13 rules—a total of 474 words—on a bulletin board at the Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA. [Hear the only known recording of Naismith talking about his invention of the game from a 1939 radio interview, weeks before his death.] If it wasn’t already such a busy time of the year, with so many other things to do, Dec. 21 should be a joint Canadian/U.S. national holiday.

In March of 1925, at the age of 64, Naismith was still a celebrated speaker, giving well-attended presentations about the benefits of physical education. But in Lawrence, he was relegated to teaching a a health and hygiene course at Kansas, using graphic U.S. Army slides from World War I to teach 60 freshmen about the dangers of venereal disease.

On this weekend, however, he was invited by Arthur L. Trester, commissioner of the Indiana State High School Athletics Association, to be the guest of honor at the 14th edition of what would become the most famous high school basketball tournament in the country, the inspiration of hoops heroes for more than a century.

Dr. Naismith agreed to attend but, as was his habit throughout his unassuming life, there was little pretense about his appearance. Frankly, he just wanted to see if his simple winter diversion had been corrupted by the IHSAA officials, who turned his “basket ball” into “Hoosier Hysteria.” When he arrived at the fairgrounds' 15,000-seat exposition hall, he had no kind of pass to get him in.  Security guards were loathe to admit an unticketed guest into the overflowing arena.

The police were called, and one of the officers eventually asked for identification. When he told them who he was, they said, “Good lord, man, why didn’t you say so long ago?”

He came to see happiness in a devastated region, in an event that had moved for the first time into a such a large arena, on a court that for the first time employed glass backboards. They were shipped in and installed a week before by the Nurre Mirror Plate Company of Bloomington, Indiana.

Naismith invented basketball—a derivation of something called “duck on a rock” that he played as a boy in Canada—in Massachusetts but it was quickly imported into Indiana a few months later at the Crawfordsville YMCA.

"Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport," Naismith once wrote.

Naismith was stunned that his indoor activity had turned into a multiday tournament sport that needed to turn thousands of spectators away. He never understood why people would pay to see the game. In reality, he never saw the need for coaching, even though he had been the head coach of the Jayhawks for eight seasons. He thought boys should just go out and play, without regard to strategy.

His trip to Indiana changed his beliefs. He was particularly surprised that adults, even if they were not parents of participants, would pay $1 a day or 50 cents per session to watch games.

"As a guest of the IHSAA, I had the opportunity to watch the effects of their state tourney,” Naismith wrote about his experience. “The possibilities of basketball as seen there were a revelation to me. The striking features were the grade of basketball, the splendid spirit of the players and the unbound enthusiasm of the 15,000 spectators who crowded the Exposition Building. …The work of Arthur Trester cannot be too highly commended, as it is showing results throughout the state."

Trester—the father of the Indiana high school tournament and an inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the shrine to basketball that anchors the town of Springfield, Massachusetts—was one of the many pioneers there that day who would end up with a plaque in Springfield.

Also sitting with Naismith was Wisconsin coach Walter Meanwell, the Big 10’s father of fast-break basketball; Iowa coach Sam Barry, the father of Pac-10 basketball while at Southern Cal; and Purdue coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert, one of the game’s great innovators with short passes and zone defenses. Future Tulane coach Clifford Wells, the rival and nemesis of one of the 16 coaches in the finals field, was in the building recruiting high school players for his summer camp. Later, he was the first executive director of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Surely first-year Indiana coach Everett Dean was there scouting the tournament’s talent. In 1942, he coached Stanford’s only national championship team.

There were legends in every corner. William Fox, editor and columnist for the The Indiana News and author of the newspaper’s influential high school basketball feature called “Shootin’ ‘Em and Stoppin’ ‘Em,” covered every game. He was called “the man who has done more than any other for high school basketball in Indiana.”

No doubt that basketball ambassador Chuck Taylor talked his way into the tournament, eager to sell his Converse All-Stars to teams across the state. Later that summer, he traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to give the first of his thousands of basketball clinics and launch his Hall of Fame career as basketball's global ambassador.

Future Big 10 legend Charles “Stretch” Murphy, a three-time All-American at Purdue, was a junior on Marion’s defending state championship team. When his playing career eventually ended, he was inducted into the Indiana, Helms Foundation and Naismith basketball halls of fame.

The tournament began on Friday at 9 a.m. when former Indiana State coach and tournament referee Birch Bayh Sr. tossed the opening tip-off in the first of nine games that day. The next day, when the finalists had to play three games to get to the championship, the first official ever inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Dale Miller, called the title game—and three others on the tournament’s final day.

Somewhere in the stands with 15,000 other fans was a young Martinsville high school freshman, there to see his older brother play in Friday’s late first-round game against Muncie. But John Wooden might not have stuck around after watching Maurice “Cat” Wooden and his Martinsville teammates lose that opening-round game, 26-22. Two years later, the younger Wooden led Martinsville to the state title.

Not all of them knew at the time they were watching the future of the game Naismith had invented, but they were. The game was different then, of course—much more akin to Naismith’s 13 rules than the game now seen every night on multiple cable channels. There was a jump ball after every basket. There was no line at center court and no 10-second backcourt violation. A controversial strategy used by one of the state’s more successful and disliked coaches—everyone called the guy “Slick” because he was always looking for some kind of edge—was a full-court stalling tactic that put a player in each corner of the court and a ball-handling guard a midcourt, lobbing passes to kill time.

Still, it was the best show on earth to these basketball pioneers.

“It was the greatest exhibition of athletics in the United States that I have ever seen,” said Meanwell, Wisconsin’s head coach. “I don’t understand how we have ever beaten any Indiana basketball team. Those boys shoot better than any man on our varsity team, and they begin to play basketball where we leave off.”

Everett Case in 1925
So what did Naismith see? A 25-year-old coaching phenom named Everett Case, leader of the Frankfort Hot Dogs, a team that had traveled the 45 miles south to Indianapolis for the state finals in each of the last five seasons but had not yet brought home the coveted shield that went to the winning team. It went all the way to the finals in 1924, but lost to Murphy's Marion High.

When the regular season ended, Case and his Hot Dogs were all but written off because the team’s star player, Robert Spradling, had been exposed to small pox and needed an emergency injection of cow pox vaccine that caused his arm to swell to twice its size.

It turned out that Frankfort didn’t need him. In the sectionals, the Hot Dogs won three easy victories by scores of 40-4, 46-23 and 58-10. In the regionals the next weekend, it had wins of 49-11 and 38-12. Spradling returned for Frankfort’s only real test of the entire tournament, against Gary’s integrated Froebel High School in the first round of the 16-team finals. African-American center Andy Smith scored Froebel’s last six points, but Frankfort held on for a 25-23 victory.

The next day, March 21, 1925, Frankfort won all three of its games, beating Muncie, Washington and, in the 10 p.m. title game, fan-favorite Kokomo for the first of Case’s record four Indiana high school championships.

Case’s team was lauded for its “power, durability, wisdom, grace and grim determination, a quintet of qualities that made Frankfort a tournament team in every way, shape and form.”

When the final game was over, late on a cold Saturday night, Naismith came out of the stands with Trester to present the championship shield to Case, to shake the coach’s hand and to hang the championship medals around the necks of the players.

The Frankfort Hot Dogs, coached by Everett Case (top row, far left).
The Hot Dogs were declared the best of the state’s 673 teams.

It was the only time Naismith ever attended the Indiana high school tournament, which Case won again in 1929, ‘36 and ’39 before enlisting in the Navy for World War II and then coming to NC State as head basketball coach.

Case never really spoke of the day he met the inventor of the game. His closest confidante, Indiana native Vic Bubas, said “In the years I knew him, he never talked about it.”

Case came to Raleigh in 1946, won 10 Southern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference championships and introduced the passion of college basketball to the southeast by insisting that conference champions be decided by a postseason tournament, which was not the norm at the time. He finished off his own show place, Reynolds Coliseum, in 1949 and is honored to this day every time the ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player is handed the Everett Case Award.

He also joined Naismith, Meanwell, Barry, Murphy, Trester, Taylor, Wells and dozens of other Indiana basketball pioneers in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame when he was posthumously inducted in 1982.

Everett “Slick” Case—known around the ACC as “The Old Gray Fox”—kept good company.

Epilogue: You can see the hand-written notes Case took while learning under Meanwell during a summer stay in Wisconsin on the second floor of the newly renovated Reynolds Coliseum Walk of Fame and History. This notebook was given to NC State by alumnus and donor Jimbo Robbins, who acquired it by trading some landscape shrubbery years ago. He donated the black-and-white notebook to NC State’s athletics department for display.

And you can see the original copy of Naismith’s original rules of basketball in Lawrence, Kansas. They were purchased at auction by billionaire investment banker David Booth and his wife Suzanne in 2010 for $4,338,500 and gifted to the University of Kansas, where it now resides.

Reach Tim Peeler at

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